The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison: America’s First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent

  • Published

The Liberation of Marguerite Harrison: America’s First Female Foreign Intelligence Agent by Elizabeth Atwood. Naval Institute Press, 2020, 288 pp. 

The author, Elizabeth Atwood, was a reporter with the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper for 20 years and is now an associate professor of journalism at Hood College in Fredrick, Maryland.

Atwood presents a story of an American foreign intelligence agent after World War I. This account is not truly noteworthy, but what makes it remarkable is that the agent in question was Marguerite Harrison¾the first female American foreign intelligence agent.

With a preface and 14 chapters, Atwood’s biography informs us of Harrison’s life as the first American female intelligence agent. The author includes an afterword, notes, bibliography, index, and eight pages of photos as support. The first four chapters detail her early life including her marriage to spouse, Tom Harrison, their son Tom, and her social background. The remaining well-written chapters feature the heart of her life as a foreign intelligence agent throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.

Over a period of almost 30 years, Marguerite Harrison used her social connections and qualifications to be a part of world espionage. Her story began in 1915 after the unexpected loss of her spouse that left her with a young son and heavy debt. Although she was conversant in several languages and a wealth of knowledge of Europe, Harrison was hemmed in by social mores of the time. In the early 1900s, she was a woman expected to be meek, humble, raise children, and keep a home. However, she rejected the expected conformity and used her socialite standing and connections to obtain a journalist job at the Baltimore Sun. While there, she learned to become a serious journalist, gathering information and reporting it. Journalism would prove invaluable in her life as a spy.

As World War I continued, Harrison attempted to join Naval Intelligence but was rebuffed. Using her social connections, she met General Marlborough Churchill, Military Intelligence Division director, and volunteered her services. But the war ended before she could serve. Still, Churchill knew that information was essential to the United States. He again sought out Harrison, hired her, and sent her to Germany after the war. This posting made her the first female foreign agent and the central character of the book. Harrison’s life as a spy was essentially six to seven years. The rest of her life was spent writing, speaking, and generally living out her life.

Harrison’s life as a spy for the United States began with her first mission to Germany in 1918 reporting on conditions in the republic. Following that posting, she was sent to the Soviet Union in 1921. But this operation ended with a 10-month prison term including four months of solitary confinement in the infamous Lubyanka prison. After her release, the story of her confinement is documented in Marooned in Moscow: The Story of an American Woman Imprisoned in Russia (1921). In 1922, once again, she returned to the Soviet Union from the East. She tried to enter the Soviet Union but again she was arrested and sent to Lubyanka but her stay, this time, is short.

After twice visiting the Soviet Union and being arrested each time, Harrison is back in the United States. She continued to speak and write about her life, the Soviet Union, and her confinement in Lubyanka prison. But by 1925, Harrison was once again seeking adventure with the true underlining task of espionage. The Middle East, now an area of interest to the United States, beckoned. With two companions, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, she embarked on a trip throughout the Middle East. The pretense was to film the Persian Bakhtiari tribe’s migration while reporting essential information for the United States. The resulting film entitled Grass (1925) was mildly received. In all, they visited Persia (now Iran), Iraq, Palestine, and Turkey. The information collected and reported provided impetus to the entry of American companies into the area.

After the film, her life as a spy was over. She returned to the United States, married, moved to Los Angeles, and carried on with her life. Almost 20 years later in 1942, Harrison offered to assist the FBI in its efforts in the war. She, however, was turned down. Harrison died in 1967, aged 88.

Harrison was intelligent, spoke several languages, and well-educated. Her greatest asset was an ability to glean information vital to the United States. She, however, was a failure as a spy. Harrison was basically known to be a spy, especially to the Soviet Union’s Cheka or secret police. Labeled a “double agent” almost from the beginning, she lost credibility, yet continued to supply important information but seemingly for both sides.

Atwood’s biography of Marguerite Harrison is an excellent read. It is an admirable account of Harrison’s life as the first female foreign intelligence agent. Each chapter captures the essence of Harrison as a journalist and her work as a spy for several intelligence agencies. Harrison, unfortunately, fails at being a spy, but we cannot fault her completely. Churchill did not prepare her, did not make her aware of danger, and yet willingly placed her in harm’s way.

Then again, her accomplishments as a US citizen were exceptional. She was the founder of the Children’s Hospital School in Baltimore and Society of Women Explorers. Both are thriving today. She wrote several books: Unfinished Tales from a Russian Prison (1923), Red Bear or Yellow Dragon (1924), Asia Reborn (1928), and her autobiography, There’s Always Tomorrow (1935). Harrison also starred in the film Grass (1925).

What can we readers gain from this book? First, journalists are well trained in gleaning information from sources. Second, espionage is filled with danger at every turn. Third, women are extraordinary.

Maj James A. Boyless, USAF, Retired, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."